Mayoral Control -- A Decade of Distraction

On one hand, it might seem that the latest round of urban NAEP scores would bolster the argument for mayoral control over the school system in Los Angeles. The sprawling, under-financed, highly challenged LAUSD fared poorly compared to its other big-city counterparts on many measures of achievement.

And at least some school reform advocates -- not just the business types you'd expect -- are all for it. This weekend's CSM piece on the issue (LA's mayor is latest to tackle school reform) quotes Russlyn Ali of The Education Trust-West as praising the mayor's proposal, which might require changes to both municipal and state law. [Many others predictably are opposed: Antonio’s case for control of L.A. Unified merits a C+ (LA Weekly).]

However, Chicago, the city that has had mayoral control the longest, fared little better than LA on the NAEP report. And, as I have written and others have researched, mayoral control is hardly a guarantee of success. Over the past decade, mayors of many cities (Boston, Chicago, New York, Cleveland, Detroit) gained control (complete or partial) over the school system.

In some cases -- Chicago and New York being key examples -- it is not so much mayoral control over the system but rather the system's ability and authority to monitor and intervene in the schools that really matters. In Chicago, the 1995 law gave the Board enhanced powers over low-performing schools. In New York, the shift to City Hall was accompanied with the elimination of the independent elected community school districts.

Whatever happens at the top in LA, let's hope that elected officials and advocates will keep their eyes on the prize: an accountable, responsive leadership focused on key classroom capacity issues that has the organization and the authority to monitor, implement, and intervene where necessary. There's still time to focus on these things, and perhaps some good ideas in here: Rand report proposes fixes for school district LA Daily News. [UPDATE: Governance options from Rand and others can be found here).


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